Wednesday, April 10, 2013

First Creation Story: Sabbath

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 1:1-2:4a:

Today we begin a new sermon series in which we will work our way through the Book of Genesis.  Now one of the problems with these stories is that they are ones that most of us know, and we have known them for most of our lives and because of that we sort of become immune to what the stories actually say, and sometimes what the story actually says does not  match what we think the story says, and so today we begin by hearing the first of two different creation stories, and I ask that you listen to it as if you have never heard it before and listen for things that you had forgotten, or never knew, so here is the first creation story:
We obviously hear a lot about creation stories these days, and it always seems to be pitted between those who believe in the bible and thus a certain view of creation and those who believe in evolution, another view of the creation, and we are told that we cannot believe both, that this is sort a black and white world in which there is no grey.  Well I’m here to tell you that not only don’t you have to succumb to this false dichotomy, but that you can believe both in the Bible and in evolution, as I and millions of others do as well.  But there are several things that we must keep in mind when we are looking at scripture.  The first is trying to understand what the Bible is and what it is not.  It is not a book of science, and was never intended to be a book of science, first of all because the men who wrote it did not understand science, or really anything, the way we do now.  And the second is that they had absolutely no conception of things either being true or false, or fiction or non-fiction.  That is an idea which did not come about until the rise of the enlightenment, so within the last 300-400 years.  Before that no one thought that way and when we try and make things being either true or untrue we again create these false dichotomies.

Part of the reason why fundamentalists want to argue for a strict interpretation and to claim that everything the Bible says must be true is because their fear is that if one thing can be proven false then everything could be false, and their faith would be left in tatters.  The Bible was never written set up to hold up to that standard, and I can show you lots of things that are in the Bible that simply aren’t true or that contradict each other, including in these two different stories of the creation.  But what scripture can do is to tell us the truth, capital t truths, even without it being true the way the modern mind understands it.  Let me give you an example.  I have told my daughters the story of the little boy who cried wolf in order to try and get them to understand that if they keep saying something then we won’t believe it when it really happened.  Now if I was to be able to prove to you that there was in fact no little boy who ever cried wolf, would that mean that the story wasn’t true and that I should stop telling it?  Of course not.  The story is still just as true and we need to read the Bible in a similar way and stop trying to give into a modern understanding that will lead us down paths that we don’t want to or need to go down.  This leads us back to today’s passage.

So let’s dig into what this account a little bit and see what it actually says.  I’m guessing that some of you might have noticed something about the creation of man and woman.  What we are told is that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Now you might all be saying, “Hey, what about the whole Eve being made out of Adam’s rib thing,” but that comes from the second creation story.  I think that is the version that tends to be emphasized because it tends to be men who are doing the emphasizing, and it is not usually used without a particular point about male dominance being emphasized.  Here male and female are created at the same time, and both are made in God’s image, which would also seem to emphasize the fact that although we tend to use masculine pronouns for God that God is both masculine and feminine otherwise we couldn’t both be made in God’s image.

We should also note that God, in this version, does not create ex nihilo, or that is out of nothing, instead there are things which are preexistent, namely darkness, chaos, and water.  All these are things that were considered evil in the ancient world, which is a claim that evil in the world is not here because of God, but because they already existed, but God is able to tame them.  In this version, again in comparison to the second creation story, God creates by fiat, that is God says it and it happens.  God says let there be light, and there is light, God says let there be a done in the waters, and there is a dome.

This account of creation is very similar to a creation story from the Babylonians called the Ennuma Elish, but there are some significant theological differences. 
The first is that on the fourth day God creates the sun and the moon and the stars, but the story does not say sun and moon, instead they are called the “great lights” one which rules the day and one which rules the night.  But why are they not just called the sun and moon when we all know that’s what they are talking about?  Because the Hebrew word for sun and moon are also the Babylonian names for their sun god and the moon god, and so if they were to be named in the story it would be to name other gods, which couldn’t be done.  The same thing happens when the author references seas plural versus sea singular.  So what the author of this story is saying is that not only are the sun and the moon and the sea not gods, in opposition to the Babylonians, but they were created by our God.

What God actually does create here is to separate the waters into two different spheres.  First there is the water which is under the dome, which is under the land, and then there is the water which goes above the dome.  This is done on the second day. On the third day land is created by gathering the waters together to make the seas.  So now we have land appear, which floats on the waters of the bottom dome, and people knew there was water under them because they dug into the ground and found water, and in the dome of the sky all the other waters are held back, and that had to be the case because otherwise where did rain come from?  That is what the Noah story says is that the dome of the sky is opened for the flood waters to come.  All the stars and the sun and the moon are affixed to this upper dome, but they are all equidistant from each other.  The earth is flat obviously, it is obviously at the center of everything, and everything else is the same distance from the earth.  That is what the story says.

Now if we are to actually take this story literally, then we should all oppose anything that NASA does because every rocket we send into space runs the risk of poking a hole in the upper dome and flooding the planet.  We also have to reject the idea of the earth being round, of their being planets that are different distances from us, or that there are other universes.  Now I think we would all think that sounds a little ridiculous because we know that’s not really the case.  This is when we have to know that the Bible purpose of the Bible is not to be a science text book, it is a theological treatise.  It is not setting out to make a claim about how the earth was formed, instead its purpose is to say who formed the earth.

We now know that the universe is infinitesimally huge.  Our solar system consists of our sun and 8 planets, not including Pluto, and I sort of miss Pluto.  But if we were to scale the universe so that the earth was the size of a pea, Pluto would still be a mile and a half from the earth, and the next closest star would be 10,000 miles away.  The average distance between stars is 20 million million miles.  No one knows how many stars there are in the Milky Way galaxy, of which we are a part, but estimates put it anywhere between 100 billion and 400 billion. A hundred years ago we thought that was it.  But we now estimate that that we are just one of maybe 200 billion other galaxies that make up the entire cosmos, many of them bigger than our galaxy.  Again to try and put this in some perspective, if the entire cosmos were scaled to the size of the earth, our solar system, the sun and the 8 planets, would be the size of a bacteria.  Is our faith crushed because we know how it rains, but unfortunately not when it’s going to rain, or that the earth is not at the center of the universe, or that there are plates which the continents move around on. Or that there are billions of other galaxies out there?

The problem is that all of this is really hard to understand or even begin to comprehend, and the problem when we get too much information, especially information that is hard to digest, in the words of Nate Silver in his excellent book The Signal and the Noise is that we “engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remained, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.”  And that is certainly what I think has happened between science and religion, and both sides are equally to blame, but in order to be faithful, in order to stay in relation with God, we don’t have to reject science.  We don’t have to check our brains at the door in order to be Christians.  As United Methodists we approach scripture using the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which says that we approach scripture asking what the tradition says about it, what our experience says about it and what our reason says about it, and so using that science can help to explicate and deepen our faith, rather than being seen as a threat.

Our  faith in and understanding of God need not be limited or eliminated by knowing more about how the earth was created or by the size of the universe, instead they can be expanded exponentially, because we can try and comprehend the size of the cosmos although it’s really beyond comprehension, at least for me, which God is the creator of, and then I remember that I am created in God’s image and that God knows about me and cares about me, this small speck in the infinence of creation.  Genesis is not trying to tell us how God created, but that God created, because while science might be able to tell us how and what, which is what science seeks to answer, science cannot tell us why God created or for what purpose God created, because those are not scientific questions, those are theological questions.  Science can answer how and what, which theology cannot, and religion can answer why and for what purpose, which science cannot.

But with all that said, here is the point of this sermon, which is that really all these arguments really miss the point of the first, and even the second creation story entirely, because they are not really about the creation story in itself but rather something else entirely which we find at the end.  Michael Crichton, who is probably best known now as the author of Jurassic Park, recounted a time in which he was visiting the outback of Australia.  He had just finished working on a movie and so when his aborigine guide asked him what he did, he told him that he worked in the movies, and his guide said he had seen one movie onetime.  He said it was about a man named Hindy who had a fear of snakes, and so he had to confront that fear.  It took Crichton a little while to figure out what the man was talking about, but then it occurred to him that he had seen the original Indiana Jones, and to him that movie was about Harrison Ford confronting his fear of snakes.  Now if I was to tell you that was what the movie was about, you would tell me I was wrong, the same as if I told you that Murder on the Orient Express was about a train trip, or that The Godfather was about killing horses.  The purpose and meaning of a story is most often found in the conclusion or the end of the story, and the same is true here.

The first story of creation is not told to us not to tell us how the earth was created, but instead to tell us why we rest of the Sabbath day.  We rest because God rested.  God did work for six days, and then took one day off and blessed it as a day of rest.  This creation story tells us about why we celebrate the Sabbath and why we are to keep it holy.  Now later we are told in Deuteronomy that the reason we practice the Sabbath is because we were slaves in Egypt, and so this is another one of those times in which if we look for consistency in the Bible we are not going to find it because it’s an anthology of books rather than one book.

What we find in this creation story, which stands in opposition to other stories from the ancient near east, is that God preferences time.  God is not bound by space, but God makes time holy and sacred and God is even the one who creates and orders this time.  This incredibly important for the early Israelites because in the ancient near east the gods were located in a specific place, and so if you left your homeland you would get new gods wherever you went.  But what this tells us is that God is not bound or controlled by location, that God is a part of time and thus God is everywhere and God has made time itself sacred.

We practice the Sabbath because God made the creation and called it good, and then God rested on the seventh day, and this serves as a reminder to us that no matter how important we think we are, or our work is, that there is nothing which should keep us from resting, because in resting we become part of the creation story.  There is a reason why we call play or rest recreation, because it is literally re-creation, to create again.  [become less productive more time we work]  Even for ministers, who after all only work one work one hour a week, we too must take time to rest, to recreate.  The purpose and meaning of the first creation is not to tell us how God created, but instead it is to tell us that God created, and that God has made time sacred, a time in which we all participate, and thus we too need to keep and make time sacred, not just for ourselves but for everyone.  May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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